The dam failures that flooded entire swaths of Michigan on Wednesday didn’t just happen by chance. Boyce Hydro, the company that owns the two dams, has a history of ignoring federal regulations designed to prevent disasters like the floods from happening.
Yet just a day before their collapse, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to encourage further deregulation as part of his coronavirus recovery plans. Such government actions threaten to create even more infrastructure failures in the future, especially as the climate crisis challenges the integrity of such structures.
In Michigan, record rainfall was likely the immediate cause of the Edenville Dam collapse, and the floodwaters then overwhelmed the Sanford Dam downstream. The Edenville Dam was already a known problem. Federal regulators flagged that the dam wasn’t built to handle heavy rainfall as early as the 1990s. That’s because the dam’s spillways, which work to prevent the water from overflowing and becoming a catastrophic flood, weren’t built to withstand the “probable maximum flood,” according to a 2018 complaint from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The filing was clear that these issues presented “a grave danger to the public.”
The FERC went on to say:
“[T]he failure of the Edenville Dam would pose a very substantial risk to life and property, and Boyce has repeatedly failed to comply with the orders of the Regional Engineer and other Commission staff or to work with Commission staff to resolve these instances of noncompliance, notwithstanding being given many opportunities to do so.”
Despite the warnings, the dam wasn’t upgraded and was out of compliance with federal regulations. In essence, this is a preview of what could happen as the Trump administration attempts to do away with regulations, which are meant to ensure that companies comply with their responsibility to the public. Though the deregulatory executive order is being pitched as a way to speed coronavirus recovery, it’s anything but.
Instead, it will put money in the pockets of people like Lee Mueller, the Trump-loving owner of Boyce Hydro, while making Americans less safe. Trump must be making Mueller’s wettest dreams come true with his deregulatory agenda. Unfortunately for Mueller, though, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is less forgiving: She plans to do whatever is legally possible to hold the company responsible for this disaster.
“Having regulations is worse than a waste of time if you don’t enforce them,” Stan Meiburg, a former deputy regional administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency, told Earther in an emailed statement. “It just breeds contempt for the rule of law, but we need a functioning, properly staffed government to do this. The effort to diminish government by starving it is really an attack on public health and safety.”
What the U.S. needs now—more than ever—is stronger regulations that are well-enforced. The dam collapse in Michigan led to thousands of people evacuating, putting them at risk of contracting the virus. The pandemic’s economic fallout for individuals’ and states’ budgets means recovery could be slow. Making matters worse, the floodwaters threaten toxic sites downstream, like Dow Chemical Company’s headquarters and an ongoing Superfund clean up of the Tittabawassee River, which has a history of being Dow’s dumping ground. The dam collapse could potentially erase this progress. Remaining contamination at the site is mostly limited to the riverbed sediment, but the New York Times reports these floodwaters could move that around.
“Now, we see the consequences of allowing these dams to not have the necessary corrective measures taken to reinforce them,” Bill Muno, a former Superfund director at the EPA in Michigan, told Earther.
Global warming is making heavy rain events more likely and intense. That makes it even more critical than ever that infrastructure is maintained and regularly inspected to ensure it can withstand more rain and runoff.
“We understand how to keep these [pieces of infrastructure] safe,” Emily Grubert, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Georgia Tech, told Earther. “We understand, in general, how to maintain them, but we’re not necessarily always willing to actually put in the investment of time, people, and money to doing that. We do need to understand how to maintain our infrastructure and what that looks like is changing as the climate changes.”